Happy Thanksgiving readers! I hope that yours was delightful. Here on Hakalau we did a pretty good job of making our own turkey-day celebrations successful, but I’ll get to that later. I just really want to say that I am very thankful for all of you because it makes me feel a little more compelled to write and reflect on my experiences, even when I’m in a negative mood.
This week at Hakalau, our boss/supervisor joined us up on the mountain to get us more acquainted with the various projects we will be working on. We counted and mapped endangered plant out plantings – the Oha ‘Wai (Clermontia lindseyana and C. pyruleria), Haha (yes, a real Hawaiian plant name, Cyanea shipmanii), and the various mintless mints (Phylostigia brevidens – technically extinct, P. velutina, P. racimosa, and Stynogyne sp.), removed invasive plants (namely Holly this time, yes the Holly tree with sharp leaves and red berries that you all know), picked native fruits (Koa pods and Pilo – a relative of coffee – fruits), and did a little Nene work.
So, the once extinct endemic mint, P. brevidens. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? This species had not been seen since the 1870s, until a Hakalau biologist, out walking around the mountain, came across a mint he did not immediately recognize a few to several years ago. He took a sample and later keyed it out (ID’d it) as a fairly common mint species and sent the sample into the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. A couple years later, a PhD student was looking through the Bishop’s collection and encountered this sample, realized it was not the common mint that it was filed with and that it was, in fact, P. brevidens, a plant that had not been seen in over a hundred years! Immediately, the biologist was contacted and asked to find this plant as quickly as possible. Fortunately, some aspects about the site where he found the plant were easy to remember and he, with a partner, found the same plant. Unfortunately, though, the plant had been ravaged by pigs sometime recently. Despite the poor condition of the plant, they collected the cuttings and seeds (which were moldy) that they could and brought them to the Horticulturalist at Hakalau. (Fun facts, it was the same Horticulturalist that we work with today and he is the ONLY Horticulturalist in the National Wildlife Refuge system.) He worked his magic and conjured life out of the cuttings and seeds, and now they have planted over 1000 individual plants back onto the mountain. Even better, during our plant survey, one of my fellow volunteers found an individual P. brevidens that had germinated on its own! An officially wild, extinct plant! So cool!
Our Nene work this week included catching and banding an unbanded female, trying to catch some unbanded individuals, setting up a trap, and destroying some eggs. Now, before anyone gets upset about us destroying the eggs of an endangered species, let me point out that the biologist was with us and told us to, the eggs had been in the nest for at least 8 weeks (normal incubation period is about 5 or 6), that the female sitting on the eggs was feeling extremely thin and would have starved herself to death sitting on the eggs if they continued to not hatch, and we broke only one first to see if it was even fertilized. None of the eggs were fertilized. Guy must be shooting blanks or something. Catching the Nene was a very enjoyable and undoubtedly amusing process, as is catching most any bird (especially large birds) without injuring or killing them. We would fan out behind the bird(s) and slowly herd them towards an enclosed area and/or a man with a large net (the kind you take fishing to scoop fish out of the water). You have to go very slowly and try to not make eye contact with the birds so they do not think that you are preying upon them and get freaked out. Then, the guy with the net drops it over top of the bird and extracts it. Unfortunately, when we were trying to do this, the guy with the net dropped it over top of the bird and scooped at it, as if trying to scoop a fish because he had worked in Alaska for a long time prior and that was what was programmed into his neuromuscular system. If you scoop a bird, it has wings and can fly away, unlike a fish. It was a little disappointing, but mostly hysterical. After that, though, the birds did not trust us and flew away as soon as we got near. The Nene trap is very simple – a mesh box with a door that you can pull up from a distance. We make a trail to the trap with cracked corn and put more corn and a dish of water inside. Right now we’re just leaving the trap out there so that the birds get used to it and associate it with food.
We’ve also been checking the Mongoose/Cat traps every other day. Unfortunately, we have not caught anything since us Laysan volunteers have arrived. Just before we got here they had caught two cats. These cats are basically wild house cats. Yes, when we catch these animals, we catch them to kill them, like the invasive cattle and pigs. Again, before you get upset about killing cats, especially, all me to refer you to why cats are troublesome for wildlife, especially birds. (I give much praise to TheOatmeal. I highly suggest that you follow his work.) Having cats on a reserve that is largely here for endangered birds, is a very bad thing for the endangered birds. Talk to any “bird nerd” and they will almost undoubtedly gladly wax poetic about how terrible cats are to have outside. The mongeese, which I’m guessing you are significantly more comfortable with us killing, predate upon birds and bird eggs, especially the Nene’s eggs. If we catch and kill at cat while I’m here, I’m sure I will have some reflections on the experience, but for now this is all I can offer.
On Wednesday, we finally got to get off the mountain for a little bit, we went into town to resupply on food – mostly perishable and Thanksgiving items. The volunteer group and staff have all been very nice about feeding us while they are up here, which is absolutely delightful. For Turkey-day we had a roast chicken (we didn’t have time to thaw a whole turkey or the stomachs to consume it in a reasonable quantity of time), mashed potatoes, collard greens, stuffing/dressing, fresh bread, and pumpkin pie. Without work we got to spend the whole day cooking, and we really took advantage of that. It was a fantastic meal with leftovers extending through today.
For the weekend, our main project with the Horticulturalist was shading trees. Sounds like a terrible idea at first, for what you know about trees, right? Well, we were shading baby Koa trees that had been planted in September, so no more than a foot tall. On the mountain, when the frosts come and the ground freezes, the morning sun can actually kill the plants and burn tissue leaf tissue because of transpiration. Transpiration the process through which plants pull water out of the soil and into the leaves to exchange with CO2 in the air to make glucose through photosynthesis. If the ground is frozen, there is no water available to the plant’s roots to pull up, so the leaves get burnt up by the direct sun. However, if we put up shade cloths – a square between two meter tall stakes – on the east side of the plant, the morning sun is dispersed and mellowed until the ground can warm up by midday (when the sun will finally hit the plant directly), melting the frozen ground, and making water available to the plant.
Happy Thanksgiving and a happy upcoming holiday season!